Image: Andersontown, NJ, where Jacob Harden rented a room (and where he poisoned his wife).
Image from: Murder by Gaslight, published 23 September 2017
Earlier this year I wrote quite a bit about scenes and other information in the latest Saint Maggie book, A BALM IN GILEAD. So, I am decided to move on and write a different blog. This one is about how I started on my journey with Maggie.
While enrolled in a Ph.D. program in North American Religion and Culture, I took a tutorial. Tutorials are a one-on-one with a professor, who presents the student with subject matter and then guides the student through the research and writing process.
In this case, the tutorial was about scandal in ministry, and two of us had enrolled. The professor was Leigh Eric Schmidt, currently the Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. After a brief introductory meeting, Dr. Schmidt turned us loose to go forth and do historical research about our scandal of choice.
Little did I know, but the research I was about to do would set me on an unexpected journey.
While I was nosing around the archives and other materials, I happened upon information about a young, charismatic, talented Methodist Episcopal Church minister by the name of Jacob Harden who had been appointed to a congregation that had lost membership. The congregation was on “mission status,” which was a polite way of saying the church was on the edge of dying.
Fortunately, Harden was a handsome young man and an engaging speaker, and the little church began to grow again. In fact, the congregation doubled in population during the young pastor’s first year.
Did I mention that Jacob Harden was single? He was and so he also became the object of ambitious mothers who thought that he would make the perfect husband for their daughters.
As the story goes, one mother, a Mrs. Dorland, invited Harden to celebrate New Year’s Eve with her family. During the evening, the entire household abruptly left and went upstairs to go to bed, leaving Harden and the daughter, Louisa, all alone in the parlor, which in the 1850s, was a big no-no. After all, because no one was around, they did not know what went on between the couple. Anything could have happened! After more "alone time," Harden and Louisa were forced into a shotgun wedding.
Predictably, the marriage was not a happy one. Harden wanted out and Louisa was miserable - but divorce was out of the question. Harden eventually decided to dissolve the relationship in a manner that only was illegal, but shocking. To be blunt, he poisoned her. He then was put on trial for murder, the jury found him guilty, and sentenced him to death.
If you wish, you may read the original research paper by clicking on https://www.squeakingpips.com/the-story-behind-saint-maggie.html But, be aware that the paper looks at the way in which the newspapers of the era covered the story. It’s grad school geekery on full display!
After grad school, the story stayed with me. I began to wonder how I might go about fictionalizing it.
Around 1999 or 2000, I started writing and making changes in the fictionalized version. For instance, although Harden rented a room from a member of the congregation, the setting felt claustrophobic in the fictionalized story. I ended up creating a boarding house run by a good-hearted widow with two teenage girls.
I also felt that the pastor in the story should not be devious or amoral. Rather, he should be confused, desperate, and perhaps even misled.
The original event is still shot throughout the story. In SAINT MAGGIE, the Rev. Jeremiah Madison is handsome, charismatic, and an inspiring preacher, just like his real-life counterpart. In fact, Maggie’s daughters (especially Frankie) develop a crush on Jeremiah. But he has eyes instead for Leah Beatty, Maggie’s niece, a relationship that is encouraged by Maggie's brother Samuel.
However, the novel deviates from the historical event and becomes a bit of a mystery. When a scandal involving Jeremiah shakes the town, Maggie begins to sense that something has gone terribly wrong and looks to uncover the truth.
My studies in religion and culture allowed me to create Maggie as a credible historical character. A widow, she is a faithful Methodist who is serious about Jesus’ command to love others. I also dove into 1860s life, describing Sunday worship services, camp meetings, funerals, and even wash days.
To balance Maggie’s religiosity, I added Eli Smith, a boarder who both lives and publishes his penny weekly newspaper in the old caretaker’s house on her property. A former Quaker, Eli is a religious skeptic and a bit impulsive. From the beginning of the novel, though, he and Maggie clearly are sweet on each other and eventually marry.
To add to the drama of the era, Maggie’s property has a Underground Railroad station hidden on it. A Black couple, Emily and Nate Johnson, are Maggie’s closest friends and have invited her to participate in the illegal activity. Ex-Quaker Eli, true to his roots, also takes part in managing their station and the people traveling through it.
At the time of SAINT MAGGIE’S publication in 2011, I thought I would move on to different subject matter in my second novel.
I was wrong.
That story continues in the next blog.
In the meantime, practice love and peace.
Janet R. Stafford
Image if of the full cover. We chose to wrap the image around the book, and I think it looks amazing.
To remedy the lack of educational opportunity for Black children, Maggie, her sister Abigail, and friends Emily and Rosa start a school. Some of Blaineton’s citizens are bothered by the fact that a school has been opened to accommodate children of color, as well as the children of an Irish family who live outside town.
The cauldron of anger aroused by the school comes to a boil one night, and the members of Greybeal House are awakened by the sound of shouting outside. Having seen this behavior before, they know it is sign that trouble is afoot
The Greybeal House family are quick to act. Maggie, Emily, and the children seek shelter in the woods, while Eli and Nate lead a party made up of Carson, Grandpa O’Reilly, Edward, Lydia, Frankie, and Rosa to meet the intruders.
Their household is quite unconventional for the time. Maggie, Eli, Frankie, Lydia, and Carson are white. Grandpa O’Reilly, although white, is Irish (another hated group). And Nate, Emily, Edward, and Rosa are Black.
So… think about it. It’s 1864. What should you do with a group of troublemakers screaming outside and threatening to burn down your house?
Fighting tip: don’t forget to bring a couple of heavy, iron frying pans They're great weapons!
“May we help you?” Eli asked.
The masked strangers hooted. Their voices were young, as if they weren’t quite men yet.
“Yeah. You can clean this house up to start.”
Eli hissed with irritation. “By ‘clean up,’ I assume you mean that you want me to get rid of the people of color who live here.”
“What else? This amalgamation is just plain unnatural!”
Eli smirked. “Not as unnatural as showing up at our house in the middle of the night and shouting insults. I never heard of such a thing.” He turned to the others. “Have you?”
His friends responded with a series of negative responses.
Returning his gaze to the intruders, Eli said, “We’re not gonna change the way we live for you or anyone else. So, it looks like you need to leave.”
“Don’t think so. We ain’t going nowhere.”
“Not ‘til you get rid of the n****rs.”
Rosa’s eyes narrowed. Her hand tightened around the handle of the frying pan she was holding and she took a step forward. But Frankie’s free arm blocked her path.
“Let me pass,” she hissed. “I’m gonna knock some heads.”
“No, you aren’t,” her friend replied. “Hold it in. We don’t want to start anything.”
“What I want is to kill those no-good –”
“No, you don’t,” Frankie calmly interrupted. “You just want to beat the tar out of them.” She grinned saucily. “So do I, for that matter. But we’re going to let Papa handle things. We don’t know if they’ve got any weapons.” She returned her eyes to the masked men. “We’ve faced people like this before when they burned down the boarding house.”
Rosa frowned. “This has happened before?”
“Yep. It’s getting predictable and boring.”
“In that case, maybe I would’ve been safer in the war.”
“There’s a war at home, too,” Frankie replied. “No matter where you go, it’ll be there. But let’s wait and see if Papa can convince them to leave.”
“You see, fellas,” Eli was saying, “trying to push us around won’t change our minds, nor will it change the way we live. We believe white and Black can – and should – live together.”
“Oh, yeah?” One of the intruders held up a stick, the top of which was wound with cloth. “Well, we say kick ‘em out or we burn the barn down.”
Eli remained calm. “Oh, I wouldn’t advise that.”
One of the others struck a match and, with a flourish, touched it to the brand. The spark caught and a flame swallowed the kerosene-soaked cloth.
The four let out a celebratory whoop and started hollering insults again. But their cries abruptly ended when two dark figures flew out of the shadows and tackled them, bringing two of the young men down with a jaw-jarring thud.
Brandishing pistols, Grandpa and Carson suddenly rushed toward the two standing men. Frankie and Rosa followed, frying pans held high and screaming like banshees. The men cowered, looking desperately around for an escape route.
Before a full-fledged fight could break out, the sound of horse hooves thundered down the lane.
“Help!” the rider was yelling. “Help!”
All parties froze. After a pause, the fellow holding the torch dropped it onto the grass and ran off, followed closely by the other male. Both sprinted past the galloping horse and disappeared into the dark.
Edward and Nate quickly captured the two fallen intruders and hauled them to their feet. After thumping his way to the torch, Eli began stomping out the flames to prevent the grass from catching fire.
The rider pulled his horse to a stop. “Mr. Schmit!”
The voice belonged to Josef Larsen, The Register’s rotary press operator. He leapt from the horse’s back. “Mr. Schmit! They’re burning down the town!”
If you want to know what happens next, I’m afraid you’ll need to read the book. It only costs $0.99 on Kindle, but it’s also available as a paperback on Amazon. Just click here.
Favorite scenes from one more book to go! I'll look at the newest one, A Balm in Gilead, in my next blog.
Take care and stay well.
Janet R. Stafford
Image from: http://clipart-library.com/clipart/355513.htm, History Cliparts #135374 (License: Personal Use)
I love writing historical fiction. I do it because I always have wondered what it was like to live during certain periods in time. I also like to make history accessible to people. The subject of history often is perceived as a bunch of boring details – but those alleged boring details include people who lived and died and loved and shaped the world around them. So, I enjoy trying to create characters and storylines that just might interest readers enough for them to read a non-fiction book about history. Or read more stories in my series. Either one. I’m not picky!
However, writing historical fiction brings with it certain demands, just as any genre does. For instance, in science fiction or fantasy, an author needs to create credible worlds, complete with their own cultures and histories. Romance needs to have believable characters and situations for love to grow between individuals. And historical fiction needs a grounding in history before an author tries to add fictional characters, settings, and situations.
I felt compelled to write this blog because I'm starting a short story or novella (not sure which it will be yet) about Frankie & Patrick's wedding. The original plan had been to have them move to a gold mining town in Colorado soon after the wedding, since Patrick has been offered a job as a town's doctor.
But then the need to do research rose its demanding, ever-present head.
First, it’s 1864 and the pair are going to go to Colorado in mid-October? Even these days, heavy snow in mid-October can close mountain passes either for the season or temporarily. And if closed for the season, the pass might not be open until mid-April.
Now, imagine a stagecoach trying to travel through rough, snow blocked, dirt roads. Yeah. That’s right. It’s not going to happen. I think the reality was that no one got in or out until spring. I still need to confirm this, but it makes sense.
Another point: the Civil War is still raging in October of 1864. About five battles were fought in Missouri from October 15 through October 28. If Frankie and Patrick wanted to get through to the border of what was then the United States on their journey to the Colorado Territory, they would take a train either to Independence or St. Joseph. I feel that neither would want to risk traveling to the end of the line until after hostilities between North and South ceased in April 1865.
Of course, my intrepid couple always could go by way of Chicago but once again, given the winter conditions, but it does not sound all that workable. I think their adventure out west actually will need to begin in spring, 1865.
So, here’s my new plan: Frankie and Patrick remain in Blaineton, NJ during the first few months of their marriage. Patrick works at the Western New Jersey Hospital, where he will be schooled in how to treat things other than war wounds and diseases common to military encampments, while Frankie does... well, she does Frankie. I'm not sure what she'll get up to, but she almost always gets up to something, and I'm confident that she'll soon let me know what that “something” is!
There you go. A morning in the life of an author of historical fiction. It's fun. But it's fun only if you're a history geek!
Janet R. Stafford
Cover Image for A Good Community: Children playing near a schoolhouse in the 1800s. (Purchased from iStock.
Yes. I have been Missing-In-Action from my blog and just about everything book-related. Life tends to turn things upside down. I had the usual Holy Week and Easter services and activities in mid-April. But a few extras were added, among them the return of pain related to my degenerative disc disease. One MRI and a consultation with the doctor at the pain management and rehabilitation center later, and I’m getting 12 sessions of physical therapy, including acupuncture. I’m looking forward to feeling better soon – and hoping it lasts for another year.
SO! Today’s topic: a scene from A Good Community, Book 5 in the Saint Maggie series. The main theme in the novel revolves around a majority decision by town’s folk to segregate the school. That leaves the African American children living up on Water Street without a school.
Enter Maggie and Emily, who learn the news when they try to register two newcomers to Greybeal House (orphans Mary and Addie Brooks). They are shocked to hear about the new ruling. When they learn that industrialist Josiah Norton is the chairman of the school board, Maggie seeks Josiah out.
She finds him and Josiah proudly gives her a tour of his hotel, the Norton Arms. Then they sit down to tea in the restaurant. Maggie now has a chance to question him about the new policy at the town’s school. His reply is not unexpected:
“Oh, come now, Mrs. Smith. I should think that were obvious. Everyone knows the colored race is inferior. They are of lesser intelligence and lower morals. To have them sitting next to white children would only serve to slow our pupils down.”
“I disagree. Colored people are quite intelligent and many are well-read. And as for morals, I have met far too many white people who are selfish and badly behaved. I don’t think color enters into morality at all.” Frowning, she sat back in her chair. “And I must say that this situation strikes me as rather odd. Most of the people in Blaineton claim to be Christian, yet they conveniently ignore Saint Paul’s words that there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, and male nor female. We’re all one in Christ.”
He smiled condescendingly at her. “Ah, but Saint Paul says nothing of race.”
“Mr. Norton, were not Jews and Greeks considered races back in Saint Paul’s day?”
“But he does not make a specific mention of color. The majority in town believe that white and Black children should not be put together, and with good reason. Remember the story of the children of Ham!”
Maggie had to use all her self-control not to snap at him. She took a sip of tea as she decided what to say next.
“You do know that story, don’t you?”
The nearly mocking expression on his face irked her.
“Of course, I know it,” she fumed. “Ham was the son who saw his father Noah unclothed. But nowhere does the Bible say that Ham was cursed. Noah cursed Ham’s youngest son, Canaan. And nowhere does the Bible say that either Ham or Canaan had dark skin.” She took another sip of tea. Her hand would have trembled, had she not kept it still by an act of sheer will power.
Maggie continued, “In addition, Mr. Norton, those obscure Bible verses have nothing to do with enslaving people with dark skin. And what evil possibly could come of putting children together? By way of illustration, allow me to say that I share a household with colored people of all ages: Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, Mr. Edward Caldwell, Miss Rosa Hamilton, and now Addie and Mary Brooks. And Mrs. Matilda Strong and her daughter stayed with us for several years before moving to Canada. Neither my household nor my life has been hurt by having these friends and acquaintances. On the contrary, we live in peace and our lives have been all the richer for it.”
“The way you live is considered quite eccentric by most of the town. You no doubt are aware of that.”
“Please don’t be insulting, Mr. Norton. Of course, I know what people think. But let us return to the problem at hand. I am concerned about the current situation. What is happening to the colored children who live on Water Street? Do you know who is educating them?”
“Their families, I presume. There are so few of them, it is not economical to have another school.”
“That is a rather cold thing to say, don’t you think? Would you really dismiss children’s futures in favor of saving a bit of money?”
He sat back in his chair and gazed at her in a manner that was common to haughty men who held the opinion that women were stupid. “Mrs. Smith, you are a woman, and naturally you have a woman’s heart. However, you lack the rational capabilities of a man. These greater issues are beyond your comprehension. You should be content with keeping house.”
Speechless and indignant, Maggie blinked at him. There was a pause as she thought what to do next. Tearing his head off simply would not do. They were in a restaurant and it was too public – not to mention too messy. The sheer audacity of her thought momentarily amused her.
But Maggie’s humor faded as she returned to herself and realized that engaging Josiah Norton any further would get her nowhere.
Shake the dust off your feet.
That was a good Bible verse, and excellent advice from Jesus. If you are not welcomed or listened to, move on.
Strengthened, Maggie folded her napkin and placed it on her plate. “I thank you for your hospitality,
Mr. Norton. However, I am afraid I must leave. My husband is watching our baby and it is time I returned to ‘keeping house,’ as you say.”
However, Maggie does much more than keep house when she gets back to Greybeal House - and what she does will cause quite a controversy among the folks of Blaineton.
If you’d like to read the book, you may find the paperback and Kindle at Amazon.
Until next time: practice kindness, friends! It's always a good policy.
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder